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This Princeton graduate, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, is now a different and even more global mission. He wants Americans to electrify their buildings. Is this a war we can win?


Mike Henchen works on furthering carbon-free buildings as a principal with the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Working from RMI’s Boulder office, he has been the lead author on two key reports: “The Impact of Fossil Fuels in Buildings,” which RMI describes as a crash course in building emissions, and “The Economics of Electrifying Buildings.”

He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University and a master’s in business administration from Stanford University. Prior to joining RMI, he also worked primarily in the electric power service on behalf of McKinsey and Co. in San Francisco as an engagement manager.

Big Pivots interviewed Henchen by e-mail.


Big Pivots: Let’s talk about Afghanistan. How and why did a Princeton grad become an officer in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in 2008-2009?

Mike Henchen: I grew up in an Army family and going into the Army myself felt natural. But more importantly, the Army was ready to pay full tuition for me to go to an expensive school, and I was happy to accept. So I signed up for Army ROTC when I graduated from high school just a few months after 9/11, and I was all set. Then after college I went through some training courses, got assigned to the 101stand was off to Afghanistan in 2008 for a 15-month deployment.


Pivots: The Army paid you to go to Princeton University?

Henchen: Yes, through the ROTC program. And they guaranteed me a job after graduation! I had a good experience in ROTC and think it’s a great leadership development program for young people interested in national service.


Pivots: What did you do in Afghanistan? What do you wish that more of us understood about Afghanistan?

Henchen: I deployed to Afghanistan in 2008-09 at the height of the US counterinsurgency strategy. We were on a large base (Bagram Airfield) and my unit had two missions: 1) securing the main entry points onto the base, and 2) executing that counterinsurgency strategy in the communities in our local district.

For us, this meant trying to build relationships with community leaders, direct funding to local infrastructure projects, and understand and counter Taliban threats in the area.

Being there only 15 months, it was hard to wade through cultural differences and really make those relationships matter. But I experienced great hospitality from people deeply rooted in their communities and cultural heritage. I hope people in the US can understand that Afghanistan is a beautiful country with wonderful people, and that nearly 40 million people there are living under an unpopular and repressive regime in the Taliban. And there may be hundreds of Afghan refugees recently arrived in your community who need support making a new life here in the US.


Pivots: At Princeton, did you have a seminal experience that helps inform how you ended up at RMI working on building decarbonization?

Henchen: I took an engineering course from Professor Rob Socolow called “Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World,” which was my eye-opening introduction to climate change and clean energy.

This was in 2004, after Professor Socolow had published a prominent paper showing how a portfolio of existing technologies could be deployed to address climate change without any major new scientific breakthroughs. It was a prescient piece that is still true today!

I was inspired by the opportunity that clean energy technology could provide. I also learned that we have the tools at hand to address climate change and just need to put them into action to achieve great things.


Pivots: What made you want to join RMI?

Henchen: I wanted the opportunity to work full time on climate change and the energy transition, and specifically to find a sense of purpose and shared mission with my colleagues – something I felt I missed from the Army.


Pivots: Why do you think RMI decided they wanted you?

Henchen: Well, my colleagues tell me it’s the funny memes I make about our work (LOL). But I think it was the fact I had worked as a consultant to utilities in my prior job, and RMI wanted to increase its engagement with utilities at the time. Utilities are such an esoteric industry with hard-to-understand concepts and jargon. It’s helpful to find someone with experience in that space.  (Side note – still looking for someone to explain AFUDC to me in detail!)


Pivots: OMG! SMH. WTF(ox) is AFUDC

Henchen: Ha! AFUDC, along with its cousin CWIP, are examples of utility acronyms that hardly anyone understands but can actually matter for your energy bills. They are basically ways for utilities to charge customers for projects in construction that aren’t operating yet. For a tale of how this can go wrong, read about the abandoned V.C. Summer nuclear expansion in South Carolina.


Pivots: Besides learning what AFUDC (Allowance for Funds Used During Construction) stands for, what else did you learn about utilities while you were with McKinsey out of San Francisco?

Henchen: That they’re big and complicated, and it’s hard for utilities to lead transformative change like decarbonizing our country. They are heavily regulated and have to operate in a very specific way that’s different than any other business, which makes it hard for them to be nimble or innovative.

There’s always a push and pull between utility management needing to return profit to shareholders, largely by building more infrastructure, and regulators and customers wanting to keep rates down, while also keeping the system reliable. It’s hard for everyone to layer climate goals onto that system, and utilities are slow to change.


Pivots: Why did RMI assign you to the carbon-free buildings team?

Henchen: We got this idea that electrifying buildings would be a big thing as a climate solution. Our inspiration was actually from a utility in Vermont, Green Mountain Power, which made electrification a major part of their strategy.

We thought, if they can get customers heating with electric heat pumps and clean electricity in a cold place like Vermont, this could be a big solution nationwide. So we started researching the issue, learning from others who were doing similar work, and set out a vision for clean heating without fossil fuels nationwide.

We later learned this is a big health issue too, and that burning fossil fuels in the home is a potent hazard to human health. That all turned into a big body of work and is an important part of RMI’s strategy for carbon-free buildings across the country, along with things like improving energy efficiency and demand flexibility.


Pivots: How does RMI hope to effect change in this arena? Working with utilities? Participating in regulatory cases?

Henchen: Yes, and more. We want to analyze and understand as much as we can about eliminating emissions from buildings, communicate that publicly, participate directly in regulatory cases, and engage with anyone we can who can influence change – businesses, health professionals, advocates, policymakers. An important first step is just awareness – a lot of people don’t think about natural gas as a fossil fuel, or that their home is a contributor to climate change. We want to make people aware but also show that solutions are achievable and worth pursuing.


Pivots: Where we are in this major, long-term pivot in Colorado to electrification of buildings?

Henchen: We are off to a good start but we need acceleration. There is growing support for electrification through utility programs and state and city funding.

Denver’s new incentives for heat pumps are a great example. We also see new Colorado-based businesses like Helio Home or Elephant Energy – new companies working to be the one-stop shop for homeowners aiming to get off fossil fuels — emerging to take on this challenge from the entrepreneurial side.

And the Colorado PUC is working through the hard stuff, creating a whole new framework for how gas utilities plan for the future to reduce their customer’s emissions.

And yet there’s so much further to go. The state’s GHG roadmap did the math – by 2030 the large majority of heating equipment sold needs to be electrified, for instance. The trends we see are positive, but we’ve got a long way to go to reach that level of transformation.


Pivots: Who is doing really interesting work, in Colorado or elsewhere?

Henchen: I mentioned a couple new companies, but there are also a couple dozen energy efficiency service providers in a group called Energy Efficiency Business Coalition of Colorado who are coordinating to increase their capacity for electrification projects.

Holy Cross Energy is really expanding their efforts to help their customers and the communities they serve electrify, and we’re looking forward to expanded programming from Xcel as well.

On the policy and regulatory side, great groups like Western Resource Advocates and SWEEP are designing the innovations that will move the whole state forward. And local governments are taking leadership as well, from Denver to Fort Collins to Breckenridge, developing new strategies to support their residents. Here in Superior and Louisville, new building codes will set the stage for more efficient and more electrified buildings.


Pivots: Is there a danger of moving too fast?

Henchen: The biggest danger, by far, is moving too slowly to move away from fossil fuels. We are suffering the consequences of this now, from the ever-present air quality alerts all summer across the Front Range to the Marshall Fire destroying over 1,000 homes on Dec. 30. In fact, what we need most is speed and scale. So if anyone reading needs a new water heater or heating appliance, consider going with an electric heat pump!


Pivots: Can we build non-carbon electricity generating capacity and related infrastructure rapidly enough to keep pace with our growing demands on the grid?

Henchen: Absolutely. Across the country, the energy delivered on the electric grid increased about 2.5% each year in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but has been roughly flat the last 15 years. Even if we need to double the energy delivered on the grid by 2050, this would just require going back to the same rate of growth we saw in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

That’s not to say it will be easy, or won’t require effective planning and management. It will, along with things like improved energy efficiency of buildings, flexible demands like ensuring electric vehicles charge off-peak, and high performing heat pumps that are suited to Colorado’s climate.

Colorado’s grid demands today are higher in summer than winter, meaning we have headroom to grow winter heating loads for some time before we need to have major grid infrastructure upgrades ready. We can do it, we just need to keep accelerating!


Pivots: One final question, Mike. What feeling did you have seeing the last helicopters leaving Kabul?

Henchen:  To be honest, it was devastating. Seeing so many people in absolute despair as they tried to get out of Kabul and knowing most would not be able to leave. Then seeing 13 Marines and over 150 Afghans killed in the Abbey gate attack. I’m proud of my service in Afghanistan but it’s been hard to see the US effort there end this way.




Allen Best
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